Category Archives: Sermons
Usually when I post rookie’s guides, I’m writing to help rookies as someone who is a little less rookie myself. This is not the case with topical teaching or preaching. I’m far more comfortable with preaching expository sermons or writing Bible studies that work through books of the Bible.
So when it comes to topical teaching and preaching, I’m a rookie too. I’ve had quite a lot of opportunities to do it, particularly in my preaching, but I don’t consider myself to have even come close to getting the hang of it.
Therefore as one rookie to another, here are some tips that I’ve found helpful.
1. Work out your approach
Topical teaching requires a decision regarding how you’re going to use Scripture. Since your teaching surrounds a topic, not a text, you have to work out which texts and how to use them.
There are probably four ways you can approach a topical. I’ll list them below in order of least to greatest difficulty.
a. Anchor in one passage
Instead of trying to do everything from every part of Scripture, just choose one and stick close to that one. This is my recommendation for new preachers and those least experienced with topical teaching. Find a passage and basically do an exposition of that.
For example, if your topic is repentance, you might just want to keep yourself to the classic repentance passage of 2 Corinthians 7:10 and surrounding verses. You can draw on other supporting passages, but your anchor is in this one text.
Clearly there are disadvantages to this approach. You don’t get to cover the breadth of a topic. You can actually end up ignoring the key issues raised by a topic and end up skimming the surface of a topic. But you know what? I reckon it’s better to do a good exposition of a passage that’s relevant to a topic, than to do a bad job of the other approaches below.
b. Biblical theological
Some topicals lend themselves really well to tracing that theme through the progressive revelation of the Bible’s storyline. This can be really refreshing and helpful, especially if you’re teaching those who don’t have a good grasp of Biblical Theology. It also has the added advantage of imparting a method of reading the Bible and approaching a topic to those whom you’re teaching.
An example is the topic of ‘worship’. Tracing this idea through creation, fall, redemption, and new creation is one obvious way of teaching it.
c. Systematic theological
Other topicals can fit so well with classical Systematic Theology categories that it’s most helpful just to teach that aspect of Christian doctrine. Keep your Grudem (or your ST of choice) handy and use that as a basis for your preparation.
d. DIY synthesis
Now I know that both (b) Biblical theology and (c) Systematic theology are themselves methods that require synthesis. After all, any kind of theological approach requires synthesis. However, in (b) and (c) you get the advantage of utilising synthetic approaches that have been done for you, whether it’s applying Goldsworthy’s biblical theological schema to your topic, or canvassing Grudem or Horton for what they say about the topic.
Some topicals, however, require you to do that task of theology yourself. This is hard work, and requires a level of theological reasoning that most won’t be able to pull off (myself included), but it’s worth keeping it as an option in your arsenal. If your topic is something that leans towards theological ethics (e.g. abortion, politics, same sex marriage etc.) or current affairs (e.g. radical Islam and terrorism), this is probably the approach you want to take.
However there’s a reason why this is last on the list. It’s not easy. I wouldn’t recommend any fresh preachers/leaders to try this method.
2. Interrogate your topic
If you’ve been given a topic to teach, you really need to explore that topic well. This is where those trained in expository teaching tend to fall short.
In an expository sermon, I’m not supposed to just ‘springboard’ off the text. I’m supposed to spend my time exposing the text and let it speak for itself. And so my introduction, illustrations, and conclusions are there in a supportive role to my exposition. Read my post here for what I mean by this.
In good topical teaching, and especially if you use method 1(a) above, you more or less have to do the opposite. In topical teaching, you basically need to exegete the topic and use the text in support. More often than not, you have to springboard off the Biblical texts rather than delve deeply into them. Your introduction needs to really open up the topic, raise questions, anticipate objections and questions, and then lead from the topic into the body of your sermon/Bible study. Therefore your introductions may need to be much longer. Again, it’s not something you would ordinarily do in an expository sermon.
Now of course I’m not saying that we’re at liberty to teach passages out of context, or be indulgent with our introductions and illustrations. The point is simply that in order to do a good job teaching about the topic, you need to exegete the topic in a way that does justice to the topic.
3. Be very explicit in your logic
Following someone’s train of thought in an expository sermon is important, but in some ways, the way you present that logic depends greatly on the genre you’re preaching. Teaching a psalm or narrative in a rigid three point sort of way can sometimes strip the text of its beauty.
In topical teaching, however, I would argue that a clear and logical step-by-step organisation of your sermon/Bible study is vital. Even if you baulk at the idea of an 8-point John-Piper-esque sermon for your expository teaching, you’d probably want to head in that direction for your topical. In some ways, your topical sermon is structurally more like an essay or a persuasive piece of writing. In order to persuade me, you need to ensure that I follow your train of thought and argument well. And if you’re not in the habit of doing so, give your hearers detailed paper outlines if you can.
4. Don’t try to do everything
A 30 minute sermon, an hour-long Bible study – it’s impossible to adequately canvass most topics with those time limitations. Therefore we need to be realistic with what we can achieve in one session.
If you have any control over the teaching program, consider breaking the topic up into a teaching series that stretch out over a number of sessions. If, however, you don’t have that luxury, then don’t be afraid to just teach what you can teach in that one session, and give your hearers some resources they can follow up with.
I generally don’t do Q&As after normal sermons, but with topicals (and in particular thorny issues), it’s worth doing some. This can liberate you from having to cover everything in your sermon / Bible study. You can read widely, teach on one aspect, and allow people to raise issues that are pertinent to them.
What are some of your tips and suggestions? I’d love to read them. Comment below.
Okay I know. This is a somewhat controversial blog post title.
Yes, if you’re wondering, my sermons are over 30 mins. They average 45 mins. And perhaps some readers out there are of the opinion that no sermons should exceed that length.
I’m not going to argue that point or assume that all of my listeners like the length of my sermons. However, I do think there are good reasons for rookie preachers to adhere to the 30 min rule a little more than a lot of them do.
Firstly, why 30 mins? Well in my honest opinion, the ideal range is between 20 and 25 mins. In a normal Sunday gathering, anything less than 20 mins is on the ‘too short’ side. But anything more than 25 mins is on the ‘too long’ side. Therefore 30 mins is the absolute upper limit.
Now of course there are no hard-and-fast rules. And that’s why I do believe that there are exceptions. But I want to argue that for the rookie preacher, there better be a very very very good excuse why that 30 min upper limit should be exceeded.
Before I go into the reasons why, you should know that I passionately believe in training preachers. I’m constantly listening to sermons by rookie preachers and giving them feedback. My main congregation, ACTS 11, also believes in training lay preachers. Aside from our ministry interns and student ministers, I currently have four lay men who preach regularly to my congregation, all of whom have only been trained to do it in the last year. I love training preachers, and I greatly value the men who are willing to take up the challenge to learn to preach, especially when they are also busy husbands, fathers, workers, and lay leaders.
So as an ardent supporter of preaching and rookie preachers, let me now put my cards out on the table. Please rookie preacher, keep your sermons between 20-25 mins. And please, whatever you do, don’t exceed 30 mins.
Here are my reasons:
1. Practise packaging
One of the most important skills in sermon preparation is the packaging. Rookie preachers need to learn how to spend as much time on the packaging as they do on the text. Without good packaging, even a 10 min sermonette can be extremely painful and confusing to listen to.
One of the best ways to push yourself to hone the skill of packaging is to ‘leave more on the cutting room floor’. Rookie preachers don’t yet have an intuitive grasp of what, among the mountains of material they have, ought to be left out of a sermon. They almost always leave too much in rather than cut too much out.
Keeping to an upper time limit is a disciplined way of honing your skill of cutting and packaging so that only the very best stuff stays in. After you do that for a few years, it becomes a little more intuitive. In other words, keeping it short as a rookie is a good discipline to train you for a lifetime of preaching.
2. You don’t know as much as you think
Rookie preachers are either not theologically-trained lay preachers (or youth leaders etc.), or recently theologically-trained new pastors.
If you’re not theologically-trained, then understandably you’re going to lack a certain depth with the exegesis and handling of the text.
If you’re newly theologically-trained, then you’ll probably be brimming with biblical knowledge but lack a lot of knowledge of the people you’re speaking to. This is why most rookie pastors struggle with meaningful and deep applications.
Either way, you don’t know as much as you think you know. Therefore to preach long sermons will tend to take your sermon into the land of the ‘hobby-horse’. When we’re drawing on a limited pool of knowledge (whether exegetical or practical), we tend to default into speaking about the things that we feel most familiar with and passionate about. Now that’s all fine and good for us, but it may have nothing to do with the text or with the people you’re preaching to! That’s called a ‘hobby-horse’.
3. You’re not as interesting as you think
I always remember fondly the time when one of my Bible college preaching tutors, in answer to the question: ‘How long should a sermon be?’, replied: ‘It should feel like 20 minutes.’ Great answer! It gets to the truth of the issue since sermon length has a lot to do with the giftedness of the preacher. There are some preachers who can hold your attention for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. And at the end of their sermon, you wished they talked more. Therefore it is unrealistic and unreasonable to expect that all sermons should be of a certain length.
…Unless of course you’re a rookie preacher.
We always like to think of ourselves as more gifted and interesting than we are. This is especially so when our models are extra-gifted speakers who can preach for 90 mins and make it feel like 20. Part of learning to preach is to figure out what kind of a preacher you are and be happy with how God’s made you. The vast majority of preachers are 20-25 min preachers. So as a rookie, rather than assume you’re one of that special lot who can speak for longer than 30 mins, it makes better sense to assume the opposite. Assume you’re average. Keep your sermon in that range . And if, down the track, people keep asking you to speak for longer, then maybe it’s a hint that you should speak for longer.
My point is simply: it’s unwise for the rookie to assume it.
In all honesty, of all the rookie sermons I’ve listened to, I can’t think of one instance where I wished the preacher had spoken for longer. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are brilliant and delivered by extremely gifted rookie preachers. And sometimes my feedback has been for some areas (usually application) to be developed further. But even when I’ve wished certain parts of the sermon had been more detailed or longer, it’s always been in the place of another part of the sermon rather than in addition to. I don’t want the sermon to be longer. I just want it repackaged.
Okay, these are just three reasons. I’m sure there are more. Feel free to suggest more or push back on the points I’ve made.
But in closing, I know there’s one niggling question at the back of your minds: ‘when does a person stop being a rookie preacher?’
Great question. I don’t really have an answer to that. Perhaps Chappo would say ‘after the first 50 (hardest) years’. But you know I don’t believe that, or else I’d be a total hypocrite since my sermons are over 30 mins.
Maybe there’s no ‘line in the sand’ answer. Maybe it’s one of those tacit things that you and your congregation just know. Or maybe it’s when you’ve clocked up 200 sermons (roughly 5 years of preaching if you preach weekly, with a few breaks). I have no idea. But whatever it is, if you are a rookie and you and your hearers know it, please, I beg you: keep it under 30 mins!
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.