Category Archives: Sermons
Mark 9:17 A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. 18 Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.”
I am calling your attention to these two verses, and to the second in particular in order that we may consider together the great subject of revival, and of the need, the urgent need, of a revival in the Church of God at the present time. For I am persuaded that this is a very urgent matter.
Now I want to take this story and use it as a very perfect representation of the present position. Here in this boy, I see the modern world, and in the disciples I see the Church of God…almost at this present hour. Is it not obvious to all of us, that the Church is patently failing… that she does not count even as much as she did in the memory of many of us today? And here is the Church, certainly trying, like the disciples doing her utmost, perhaps in a sense more active than she has ever been and yet obviously failing to deal with the situation. […]
Mark 7:28 After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” 29 He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer (and fasting).’”
There are certain things which are quite useless when they are applied to ‘this kind’. In other words what our Lord was saying to the disciples can be put like this. He said, in effect: ’You have failed in this particular case because the power that you had and which was sufficient and adequate for the other cases, is inadequate and of no value here. It just leaves you utterly helpless and hopeless and it leaves the boy in his diseased and powerless condition.’ Is it not becoming obvious at last that so many of the things in which we have trusted and to which we have pinned our faith, are proving to be of no avail?
[…] Of course these various methods, the apologetics and the others may indeed lead to individual conversions. We are all aware of that. Almost any method you like to employ will do that. Of course there are individual conversions, but my question is this—what of the situation, what of the bulk of men and women, what of the working classes of the country, are they being touched at all, are they being affected is at all? Is anybody being affected, except those who are already in the Church or on the fringe of the Church?
What of the spiritual and religious condition of the country? What of the whole state of society? Is this being touched at all by all our activities? Well, my answer would be that it all seems to put us into the position of the disciples who had tried to cast the devil out of the boy, these men who had been so successful in many another case but who could not touch this case at all. And our Lord gives the in the explanation, ‘this kind’ can come forth by nothing like this. By what, then? ‘This kind can come forth by nothing but by prayer, and fasting.’
You failed there, he said in effect to these disciples, because you did not have sufficient power. You were using the power that you have, and you were very confident in it. You did it with great assurance, you were masters of the occasion, you thought you were going to succeed at once, but you did not. It is time you paused for a moment and began to think. It was your ignorance of these gradations in power amongst evil spirits that led to your failure, and to your crestfallen condition at this moment. You have not sufficient power. I did what you could not do because I have power, because I am filled with the power that God gives me by the Holy Spirit, for he gives not the Spirit by measure unto me. You will never be able to deal with ‘this kind’ unless you have applied to God for the power which he alone can give you.
You must become aware of your need, of your impotence, of your helplessness. You must realise that you are confronted by something that is too deep for your methods to get rid of, or to deal with, and you need something that can go down beneath that evil power, and shatter it…and there is only one thing that can do that, and that is the power of God.
And we too, must become aware of that, we have got to feel it until we become desperate. We must ask ourselves how we can succeed if we do not have this authority, this commission, this might and strength and power. We must become utterly and absolutely convinced of our need. We must cease to have so much confidence in ourselves, and in all our methods and organisations, and in all our slickness. We have got to realise that we must be filled with God’s Spirit.
And we must be equally certain that God can fill us with his Spirit. We have got to realise that however great ‘this kind’ is, the power of God is infinitely greater…that what we need is not more knowledge… more understanding… more apologetics… more reconciliation of philosophy and science and religion…and all modern techniques—no, we need a power that can enter into the souls of men and break them and smash them and humble them and then make them anew. And that is the power of the living God.
And we must be confident that God has this power as much today as he had one hundred years ago, and two hundred years ago, and so we must begin to seek the power and to pray for it. We must begin to plead and yearn for it. ’This kind’ needs prayer.
Now, this is but the introduction to the theme that we are going to consider, but it leads me to ask this question: Are you really concerned about the present position? Are you desperately concerned about it? Are you praying about it? Do you ever pray for the power of God in the Church today? Or are you just content to read the weekly newspapers which tell us about all these various efforts and to say, ‘It is all right, the word is going on.’
‘This kind cometh not forth but by prayer and fasting.’ This word fasting is not in all the ancient manuscripts, but it implies not only literal, physical fasting, but concentration. The value of fasting is that it enables you to give your undivided attention to a subject. So what our Lord said to the disciples is this: you will never deal with this sort of problem until you have been praying, concentrating in prayer, waiting upon God, until he has filled you with the power. When you know you have got it, then you go out with authority. That is the way, and that is the only way. Surely no one should need to be convinced today that nothing short of a mighty outpouring of the Spirit of God is adequate to deal with our situation in this mid-twentieth century?
Are you really still trusting to these other things? Here is the vital question. Have you seen the desperate need of prayer, the prayer of the whole Church? I shall see no hope until individual members of the Church are praying for revival, perhaps meeting in one another’s homes, meeting in groups amongst friends, meeting together in churches, meeting anywhere you like, and praying with urgency and concentration for a shedding forth of the power of God, such as he shed forth one hundred and two hundred years ago…and in every other period of revival…and of re-awakening. There is no hope until we do. But the moment we do, hope enters.
Oh, when God manifests his power, it happens as it happened in the case of this poor boy. With apparent ease, in an effortless manner, the devil is exorcised, and the boy healed and restored to his father. When God arises, his enemies are scattered, that is the story of all the great revivals of history. But we shall not be interested in revival until we realise the need of ‘this kind’, the futility of all our own efforts and endeavours and the utter absolute need of prayer, and seeking the power of God alone.
If you’ve ever heard Tim Keller preach on ‘Hope and Money’ from 1 Timothy 6, it’s really difficult to better that.
However, I reckon there are a few reasons why it’s a mistake just to take someone else’s sermon pretty much wholesale and preach it to your congregation. And it may surprise you, but plagiarism isn’t really on my list.
First reason: sermons are preached by a particular person to a particular people in a particular time and place. This is why listening to someone else’s sermon online will never be as powerful as listening to that sermon as a congregation member in that particular time and place. God has used that speaker to prepare his words to be delivered to his people that week, that time, that place. We mustn’t think that sermons can be transported and transplanted that easily as sermons. Of course they can be tremendously helpful in our preparation, in the same way commentaries are. But to take someone else’s sermon and re-preach it with little modification ignores that God, through the preached word, wants to address a particular people at a particular time.
This is why I find it’s also very difficult to take someone else’s sermon and just modify it for your own use. A good sermon is a package whole. The times when I’ve tried to modify someone else’s sermon and just make it work for me almost always turns out to be a disaster because I’ve taken bits out of an integrated whole that actually work best as a part of that whole.
Second reason: the preacher must engage with the text directly rather than with another preacher. This is the same danger for preachers to go straight to the commentaries rather than to the text. In preaching, God wants to speak to the preacher first through his Word. If the preacher isn’t spending time letting that Word directly challenge him, ruminate and take root in his mind, causing him to think about his flock and their needs, then he is going to have a lot of the power of the preached word taken from him.
Moreover if we engage first with another’s sermon, then even when we go to the text we will allow his sermon to dominate and skew our understanding of the text. And here’s the thing: the better the sermon, the more this is the case.
So my encouragement: hear sermons for your own edification. Listen to sermons to help fill out your understanding of the text. But please don’t shortcut the process and just preach someone else’s sermon.
Here’s hoping I don’t do this on Sunday.
We’re doing a two-sermon series on money starting this week at church.
As I was looking through passages on money, wealth and possessions, I was struck by two passages that link its exhortation re: money with fear.
Hebrews 13:5–6 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”
Luke 12:32–34 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
This reminds me that a sermon about money has to deal with ‘heart’ issues rather than just ‘hand’ issues. I’ve got to somehow allow the Word of God to expose our fears and the false securities and idols that lie beneath those fears. I’ve also got to take the wonderful assurances of the gospel in order that our fears would be addressed. Then when the hearts are stilled and at peace, the hands will open up in courageous generosity.
So it’s been almost a year since I’ve posted. That’s refresh number 1.
Refresh number 2 is more interesting.
After about 10 years since I wrote my first Genesis 1-11 sermon series and preaching them through on about 4 occasions, I finally gave them a complete rewrite and overhaul. Lots has changed, including my preaching style (e.g. going from full script to notes). It’s to be expected since I wrote the first series when I was still a theology student.
One of the things I really tried to do in this series is to preach Christ from the Old Testament in a way that didn’t make every sermon ending sound the same – you know, the ‘here’s Jesus!’, as if I’ve just pulled the same token rabbit out of the same hat. But because I’m more convinced than ever that Jesus must be preached from every text in Scripture, I wasn’t willing to compromise on pointing people to the gospel through the text.
The other thing I’ve grown in is (hopefully) doing better application. I may never finish my series of posts started last year on application, but no matter. I really tried with each sermon not to be trite or formulaic with application but to dig deep.
How was the execution? Well, I’m definitely happier with these sermons than with my old series. Whether I succeeded or not isn’t best judged by me. So if you’re interested, here’s where you can find the sermons: www.sermon.net/swccc
This is a continuation of a series on application. The first post and linked headings can be found here.
This is the last ‘theological plank’ that needs to shape the way we apply the Scriptures to those we teach. Again, not too much needs to be said here. If we are to take the entire Bible seriously and follow God’s progressive revelation from Genesis to Revelation, then there is no other conclusion that we can reach except that the good news about Jesus as the Christ who died and rose again is at the centre of God’s plans for the cosmos (2 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Peter 1:12).
If this is the case, then all Biblical teaching, including application, must be driven by the gospel and driven to the gospel. Here are a few ways we can see this in light of my previous posts:
- The gospel is God’s Word for today. When we preach the gospel we are delivering the most relevant word for all people everywhere.
- The gospel is the power to change. Only the gospel brings new birth and therefore only the gospel provides possibility for transformation. Furthermore, it is the gospel that motivates those who are born again to change.
- The gospel presents an integrated worldview, a redeemed culture, a new family, and new individuals. If we are to apply the Scriptures over and against fallen and rebellious human worldviews, culture, families and individuals, then it is the gospel that offers the glorious alternative.
- The gospel deals with our liberalism and legalism. It deals with liberalism in that the gospel doesn’t ‘let up’ on God’s holiness and our sinfulness and yet graciously meets our needs by standing in the gap between his holiness and our fallenness. It deals with legalism in that the gospel is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and not by our works, merits or power.
- Preaching the glory of Christ in the gospel is the only way to replace idols.
This is a continuation of previous posts. For the first post and linked headings, go here.
d. Our Primary Sin is Idolatry
The first two commandments have to do with having and making false gods in the place of the true and living God (Exodus 20). The first chapter of Romans 1 (especially vv. 18-32) identify the ‘exchange of God’ for idols as the root of Gentile humanity’s problem. Paul’s recorded sermon in major centres such as Athens targets idolatry (Acts 17). It is his preaching against idols in Ephesus in Acts 19 that causes massive cultural transformation (and a near riot). At the heart of greed is idolatry (Colossians 3:5). There’s no doubt about it: this is the root of all sin and the primary sin! This sin affects us at all levels (mind, affections, will; individual and families; cultures and worldviews). Like Adam and Eve, our sin is rejecting and replacing God.
And yet, how many times do we teach the Bible or hear Bible teaching and the application has fallen short of really digging deep into this?
There’s not that much I need to say here because Pastor Tim Keller has done us a tremendous service. Not only in his book, Counterfeit Gods, but also in his (free) sermons and seminars online, he goes at idolatry again and again (but in different ways depending on the passage he’s teaching). It’s this, in my mind, that makes his application have that ‘edge’ that others don’t. If you haven’t heard or read his stuff, go and get it! It’s helped me tremendously in my preaching and teaching.
One more short thing to note here (and Keller does this well): the way to fight idolatry isn’t only to destroy the false gods; you need to replace them with the true and living God. Whatever our idols are: security, power, love, approval… all of these find their fulfilment in the God. It’s only as we savour the sweet satisfaction that Jesus brings in the gospel to these deep needs that we can willingly abandon them and embrace God. More of that in the next post.
This is part four of my post on applying the Word of God. For the first post and linked headings, go here.
Having seen how God’s Word needs to impact us at all levels, it’s now appropriate to look at the next related theological truth that we need to keep in mind regarding application.
c. Human Sinfulness Will Resist God’s Word
The ‘flesh’ doesn’t give up easily. When God’s Word and Spirit comes to convict the world and ourselves of sin, judgement and righteousness, it meets with resistance. Romans 8:7 puts it starkly: ‘the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.’ And although the hearts and minds of our listeners may be regenerated, it’s clear that until the new creation, our flesh still co-resides with the Spirit and a battle happens every time the Spirit attempts to gain the upper ground (Galatians 5:17).
How does this affect what we do with application?
i. Anticipate Objections
Firstly, we must expect opposition at all the levels that God’s Word speaks against: whether worldview, culture, family or individuals. There is no truth that God’s Word states that isn’t going to be met with some opposition at some or even all of these levels.
This means that in our preaching and teaching we must anticipate and answer objections. In our preparation and teaching we must keep asking: ‘How will each level of human sinfulness (i.e. worldview, cultural, family, self) try to side-line or reject this Word?’ We can never just state a truth and expect a smooth passage from the hearers’ minds into their hearts and wills. Good teaching will answer their objections in order to break down these walls of resistance. This is something that apparently the Puritans did very well. Their sermons constantly answered anticipated objections in the hearts and minds of their hearers.
ii. Anticipate How The Word is Minimised
Secondly, we will do well to understand the ways in which the individual person will try and resist the Word, because it’s rarely going to be a simple outright rejection. In fact, the more ‘religious’ we are, the more sophisticated we also become at minimising or sidelining the Word.
In the last post, I dealt with the human person at three levels: mind, affections and will. It’s helpful to see how each of these levels will try and offer resistance to God’s Word. And here’s the thing: even if the Word does trickle down from one level to another, the flesh will try and ‘stall it’ at that level and not allow it to penetrate thoroughly.
So firstly our minds will resist the Word. The initial objections to God’s truth will often come at the level of enlightenment. Only when are minds are renewed (Romans 12:1-2) can there be true transformation.
But then once the Word is understood what we’ll try and do is to keep it ‘stalled’ or locked up in our minds so that it stays there. How many of us are religiously enlightened but only have the Word remain ‘head-knowledge’? Our hearts will try to prevent deep transformation at the level of our affections and will.
However, even when the Word does get to the level of our affections – and perhaps we feel great emotion or remorse at what’s being said – we’ll again try to ‘lock it up’ at that level and not allow it to progress any further and actually change our wills. So we might feel strongly about our sin and want to repent and change, but it’s easy to then let it stop there instead of allowing God’s Word to go deeper and actually change our behaviour and patterns of living. We may even comfort ourselves that at least we felt strongly about the desire to change though it didn’t actually change the way we live.
Good Bible teaching that is strong on application and impact will recognise what’s likely to go on at all of these levels of the human self: mind, heart and will, and seek to anticipate and address these ways in which we will attempt to minimise God’s Word.
iii. Liberalism and Legalism
In the end, I reckon you can see the flesh’s opposition to God’s Word as coming in two familiar forms: Liberalism and Legalism.
Liberalism is when I try to discount the actual truth of God’s Word by either sidelining it or by massaging its pointedness or by outright rejecting it. It’s when we say to ourselves: ‘Did God really say…?’ ‘Does God really reject this or that way of living…?’ ‘Surely God can’t mean….?’
Legalism is when I accept God’s Word but I keep it on the surface rather than let it penetrate and transform me completely. The religious will always fall back to disciplines, routines, rules, traditions, and ultimately self-righteousness in order to dodge the Word as a Word against them. The legalist will keep the letter of the law but miss the spirit of the law. The legalist will be quick to point the finger at others and agree enthusiastically with the preacher that ‘others need to hear this’ while at the same time dodging how they themselves need to hear it as well. Legalism is resistance from the religious and is so prevalent in our churches.
Therefore if we fail to really apply God’s Word on a deep level and only ever go for behavioural changes rather than transformation at every level, what we’ll end up with is a church full of legalists who think everything is okay because they are ‘evangelising’ and ‘doing their quiet times’.
This is the third part of my post on application. For the first post and linked headings, go here.
The next theological ‘plank’ that is relevant to the subject of application is this:
b. God’s Word speaks against human sinfulness at all levels
The Word of God doesn’t come in a vacuum. God’s revelation of himself and his works comes in the context of a rebellious and fallen world, and he therefore speaks in order to save and reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. The Holy Spirit’s work, according to Jesus in John 16:8, is to ‘convict the world in regard to sin, righteousness and judgement’. Therefore when we teach and preach the Word faithfully, we must see it as engaging, impacting and challenging our human rebellion at all levels. However, I reckon it’s the little qualifier ‘at all levels’ that we tend to miss when it comes to application.
When it comes to considering the scope of impact for God’s Word, we must widen it beyond the levels that we’re used to, or even just the areas in which our hearers are ‘itching’. If sin causes not only fracture and fallenness in humanity but also our culture, our environment and our world (Romans 8:20-22), then God’s Word must be brought to bear on all of these levels. So here’s where I reckon our application must hit:
The Bible is more than a random collection of tales, historial narratives and morals. The Bible is a coherent worldview that answers questions such as: What is ultimate reality? Who are we as human beings? What is our meaning and purpose? Where are we going? How does this affect the way we live?
Therefore when we read and teach the Bible, we must point out the levels in which its worldview will clash with our worldviews, whether our worldviews be nihilistic or naturalistic or new age or postmodern.
A culture is a set of shared norms and meanings for a group of people. It can be based on nationality, ethnicity, socio-economics, or even hobbies and careers. We belong to many different cultures and sub-cultures as human beings. It’s how we derive meaning and significance in this world.
The Bible doesn’t create a single ‘mono-culture’ (e.g. Christendom). The picture in Revelation 7 is that many people from different cultures and languages are united around the throne of God. However, though the Bible doesn’t advocate one culture above others, it does critique every human culture at some point, because all human culture since the Fall has its idols and blindspots. And the plan of God is to one day sanctify many diverse cultures so that they are enhanced and purified for his glory.
How often do we, in our teaching of the Bible, see how the Word impacts our cultures and sub-cultures? How often do we critique our own cultural blindspots and idols as well as those of other cultures and sub-cultures? To bring it home a little more, it’s asking questions such as: ‘What God have to say about our Western individualism? Our greed and materialism? Our hedonism?’ Or alternatively: ‘What does God have to say about the Eastern love of ‘face’? The value it places on family honour? Its unconditional piety to parents?’
In many ways, your family is your little ‘sub-culture’. And yet because it’s a sub-culture that we are situated in from birth, it’s one in which the assumptions and ‘idols’ tend are least reflected upon.
The Word of God will speak against human sinfulness on this level as well. For so many people (and especially those from Asian cultures), our families are our biggest blindspots. What we assume is normal and right may not be right at all when measured against the standard of God’s Word – e.g. the role of a father or mother in the home; the expectation of children; when children are considered as ‘adults’ and what that looks like; the appropriate expression of love and affection in the home, etc.
And of course, the Word of God will address us as individuals as well. But here, it is helpful to see at what levels the individual should be addressed, for we know that sin affects us from the inside out. Therefore the Word’s impact on a person should, at the very least, be targeted at these three levels:
I’ve heard it said: ‘What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.’ God’s Word addresses sinfulness in the way we think, in what we feel and desire, and in our choices. Application so often just aims for the ‘will’ – i.e. ‘do this’, ‘don’t do that’. But what that does (as we’ll see in the next post) is it leads to legalism and ultimately powerlessness to change. Effective teaching of God’s Word will see the person as an interaction of mind, affections and will and aim not only for the ‘dos and don’ts’ but for the thoughts, attitudes and desires.
This is a continuation of the previous post.
When the context of the discussion is our flock wanting ‘more practical’ sermons or teaching, it’s easy to allow pragmatics to drive why and how we do application. However, a much better way is to allow God’s revelation itself teach us about application: what it is, why it’s important and how we ought to do it better. This is what I mean by letting our application begin with theology (and in case there’s misunderstanding of the heading, I don’t mean that we must “teach theology as our application”).
a. The Word of God is a Word for Today
The first plank in our theology, if it’s to be Biblical and evangelical, is that we believe that Scripture is by its very nature relevant and applicable to all people at all time. In other words, great application in our teaching needs to happen not because our people demand it, but because God the Author of Scripture demands it! This is particularly clear from passages such as Romans 15:4, 1 Corinthians 10:11, and Hebrews 3-4. The Word of God is a living and active Word; it is not locked in time to be only relevant to its original hearers. God’s ‘authorial intent’ is that it is relevant to us now.
This has some very important implications:
(i) I don’t need to make the Bible relevant
It’s easy to think of application of what I must do as a teacher/preacher in order to make the Bible relevant. This is a fallacy. The Bible is relevant; I don’t need to make it so. The question therefore isn’t ‘have I made the Bible applicable or relevant?’. It becomes a question of, ‘have I exposed the text in a faithful way as to point out its relevance to my hearers?’ and, ‘have I prayed for my hearers that God’s Spirit would speak directly to their hearts and drive home the Bible’s relevance to them?’.
(ii) Application is best thought of as ‘impact’ and ‘relevance’ rather than just ‘what must I do in response?’.
Many Christians have a narrow view of application, that unless I leave a sermon with three things I must do this week (e.g. do my quiet times, evangelise, stop looking at porn), then I haven’t heard any application. I reckon this is unhelpful, not the least because it creates a false presupposition that unless I am called specific action then it is not relevant and impacting.
Rather we ought to think of application as broader than just ‘what must I do?’ but ‘how does this passage impact me, challenge me, rebuke me, speak to me here and now?’. This being the case, then my job as a teacher/preacher is not to ‘save application right to the end’, but throughout the teaching to be showing people ‘how it lands’, how it is relevant, how it speaks to us now and impacts us now. In my view, this is application, and perhaps (as an answer to ‘how much application should be in a sermon?’) ought to be a good half to one-third of what we say in a sermon.
(iii) Application must be part of exposition
For me, this is a big Copernican revolution in thinking. I used to think that application is something I do after I do my work on the text. However it’s obvious that if that’s what I think then it’s very easy for application to be that little ‘tack on’ at the end of a sermon or Bible study.
But here’s the thing: if relevance, impact and God addressing us in the here and now is part-and-parcel of his authorial intent, then for me to neglect asking the questions of relevance and impact in the process of my exegesis and exposition of the text would be an act of unfaithfulness. Now this is not to say that we don’t need to do responsible exegesis – i.e. find out ‘what did this text mean?’ before we ask ‘what does this text mean?’. But what I’m saying is that if we don’t spend the time ‘mining deep’ in the text for how it impacts me, changes me and challenges me, then I haven’t completed my exposition of the Biblical text.
In our pastor’s meeting we have been discussing why it is, in spite of our efforts, that we still often get feedback from our congregations that our sermons don’t have ‘enough application’? Add this to the oft-levelled criticism of Sydney evangelical ministers that our sermons are ‘text-heavy’ and ‘practical-light’. So I’ve been doing a little bit of thinking about how to do ‘application’ better.
On one level, some of the criticisms can be unfair and may stem from a misunderstanding of what ‘application’ ought to be. But on another level, there is a good amount of truth in it. Personally speaking, it’s only been in the last couple of years since I’ve been listening to sermons widely that I’ve seen the gaping holes in my sermons when it comes to application. I’ve been especially helped by pastors such as Mark Driscoll and Tim Keller in this regard. I never realised how shallow my sermon application has been at times until I really thought hard about what these men were doing in their preaching and reflected on how they did it so well.
So here’s what I’ve been learning about application and what I’ve been trying to apply. I shared this at our staff meeting yesterday and the feedback was that it was helpful. This will have to be an ongoing series of posts so I’m just going to give the headings for now: