May 29, 2009

Preaching Like Pelagians

I stopped in a restaurant for some take-out on my way home this evening and ran into one of my preaching professors from Asbury. After placing my order, I sat down to chat with him and we quickly found ourselves discussing two of our favorite things - preaching and John Wesley. My prof was talking about how Wesley, like the Reformers, really understood preaching sacramentally, as a means of grace through which God works to convict and save. He then made a comment that stuck with me. He said that for all of our talk about grace and faith, we are really quite Pelagian in our preaching. That is, we are taught as preachers to prop our sermons up with comedy, stories, and various types of illustrations. We think that we have to give the sermon something that will make it effective in the ears of our hearers. In that sense, we are preaching like Pelagians. I commented in response that Wesley seldom (if ever) used illustrations. He would preach on and on about one verse without a single illustration, without a single joke, and God used his preaching to convert thousands and start a revival which now bears his name. Wesley realized that he was a preacher, not a comedian. So, let us realize that we do not bring the effectiveness to our preaching. God does. Preach the Word. Tell the Truth. Trust the Holy Spirit to do the work.

"In You" or "Among You All": Philippians 1:6 and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are not of one mind with regard to the doctrine of perseverance. Some Arminians see perseverance as a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. These Arminians believe that a true believer will not finally fall away from grace. Other Arminians believe that perseverance is conditional on the continuing faith of the believer, and that it is possible for a truly justified person to be cut off from right relationship with God and perish eternally. For many years I held the former view. This was not necessarily because of rock solid exegesis of scripture. Rather, it was based on the comfort that comes with the idea that the truly converted will certainly be finally saved. In recent years, though, my mind was changed about this doctrine, and I moved over to the position that one could lose their justification. I felt that, if I were to be intellectually honest, the New Testament clearly teaches that the people of God are liable to judgment for unfaithfulness. One of the clearest texts on this (and the crucial text that changed my thinking) is Romans 11:17-25 where Paul warns the Gentiles who stand by faith (pistis) against becoming proud. He then holds up unbelieving (apistis) Israel as an example saying to the believing Gentile, "if God did not spare the original branches, he will not spare you, either" (21, NASB). This is no picture of a believer wrenching his salvation from God's fist. No, this is an image of God judging the believer who has become faithless. I resisted this reading for a while. But ultimately I must be honest about what Paul says no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

At this point, the reader may be wondering why this post is dealing with Romans when the title clearly indicates that the content will focus on Philippians. Well, here it is. Philippians 1:6 was the text that I held on to in order to maintain that my former position on perseverance (or perhaps more properly - preservation) was biblical. Even after I changed my mind I wasn't quite sure what to do with Philippians 1:6. Recently, though, I began to read through Philippians 1 in Greek and was struck by what Paul actually says. I've always taken this text to mean that God would complete his good work in me as an individual. The problem with taking this reading is that it neglects the fact that the English pronoun "you" can be either singular or plural. In Greek, though, there are two different words for you - one singular and the other plural. In Philippians 1:6 Paul uses the plural word for "you" (humin). The pronoun is the object of the preposition en which is often translated "in" but can really function with much more variety than that. One of the chief functions of this preposition is to indicate the location or sphere in which an event or action occurs. Thus, Paul could mean that the location where God's good work will be brought to completion is in the plural you that is the Philippian church. The verse could be translated thus: "The one who began a good work among you all will complete it until the day of Christ" (cf. NRSV) The community of believers is the sphere where God is at work, and it is the sphere where his good work will be brought to eschatological fulfillment at the day of Christ. This is a different matter than whether or not the good work is brought to completion in the life of an individual, a matter that Philippians 1:6 simply is not addressing. Paul's confidence that God is at work in the Philippian church and will complete that work is grounded in that church's participation in the ministry of the gospel (5). Even if some individuals fall away from the work, it does not mean that God's purposes for the church as a whole corporate community will not be brought to perfection.

In conclusion, then, Philippians 1:6 is not speaking to the issue of the final perseverance of individual Christians. That question is not raised in this text. Rather, Philippians 1:6 is evidence for the Arminian view of corporate election. God has chosen his church and will complete the work that he is doing in his church. One comes into the church through faith, and, according to Romans 11:17-25 out of the church through non-faith. But even if some fall away, it does not mean that God's work in the church is thwarted. Indeed, it is he who breaks of the branches because of their unbelief (Romans 11:20).

May 21, 2009

What is Christian Preaching?

Preaching has been a central part of Christian practice from the establishment of the Church down to the present day. The gospels indicate that Jesus’ own ministry was marked by proclamation (Matt 4:17), and the earliest documents in the New Testament attest the importance of the preached gospel (Gal 1:6-9; 3:2; 1 Thess 1:4-5). The witness of earliest Church history records that the day of Pentecost was marked by Peter’s address in Jerusalem (Acts 2:14 ff.). Even before the time of Christ the centrality of proclamation in the Christian tradition was prefigured by the public reading of God’s Law by Moses (Exod 19:7, 9) and the ministries of Israel’s prophets to proclaim the word of the Lord. Neither was the prominence of proclamation lost as Christian history progressed. From the teaching of Augustine to the reforms of Luther, from the homilies of golden mouthed Chrysostom to the field preaching of Wesley, from the doctrinal clarity of Athanasius to the expositions of Spurgeon, the ministry of proclamation has been the vanguard wherever Christianity has been practiced faithfully.

While it is easy to see that the ministry of proclamation must be understood as a central discipline in Christian ministry, the question remains as to the meaning and function of Christian proclamation. What is Christian preaching? How does it function? Why is it so important? These are but a few of the questions that must be addressed if we are to reckon adequately with homiletic theology. These are the questions that we will begin to address in this essay by arguing that Christian preaching is the Christocentric proclamation and exposition of the whole counsel of God which functions as a means of grace by which the Triune God brings people to salvation convicting of sin, enabling faith, and giving life to the dead.

Preaching at its most basic level is proclamation. But what or who is to be proclaimed? Is the preacher to give the congregation snippets of his or her own self-styled wisdom? What distinguishes Christian preachers from other orators? What is the difference between the preacher and the politician or the preacher and the motivational speaker? The difference is that the Christian preacher bears the mantle of proclaiming the word of the Living God.[1] The preacher is the steward of God’s word.[2] This can be understood in at least two ways.

First, Christian preaching proclaims the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14).[3] The crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth is the central subject of Christian preaching. The Apostle Paul characterized his own faithful Christian ministry saying, “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).[4] The task of preaching is not self-proclamation. It is not the proclamation of the preacher’s latest bight idea or the preacher’s own self-styled wisdom. It is not the preaching of steps to success. Christian preaching is first and foremost the preaching of Christ. If preaching is not Christocentric, then it is not Christian. This claim is evidenced repeatedly in the New Testament. Paul understands the gospel to be the gospel concerning God’s son, Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 1:3-4). Elsewhere he says that the message of the gospel is the message about Christ’s death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:1, 3-4). Reflecting on both the false and true motives of various preachers Paul indicates that the most important thing is that Christ is proclaimed (Phil 1:15-18). Other apostolic authorities are consistent with Paul. 1 John indicates that the apostolic message includes the news that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from sin (1:5-7). The author of the letter to the Hebrews claims that God has spoken through his Son (1:2). Most certainly if God has spoken through Christ, then the preaching of the word of God ought to be Christocentric. The preaching of the Old Testament ought to be Christocentric as well. When Jesus taught the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke reports that, “beginning with Moses and all of the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (24:27). The whole Bible is Christian scripture; its proclamation ought to be Christocentric.

Second, Christian preaching proclaims the whole counsel of God. If God has indeed spoken to us through the written words of the prophets and apostles in the Bible, then the faithful preacher must endeavor to be faithful to the whole of scripture.

Two problems often arise which hinder such faithfulness in preaching. First, the preacher’s time has more demands than ever.[5] Preachers are often seen as CEO’s of the church rather than the one whose task it is to proclaim and teach the word of God. Because of this time crunch, the preacher is easily tempted to go to his or her favorite passages again and again. The problem in so doing is that the preacher is not provided with opportunity to grow in understanding of the whole of God’s word. If the preacher is not learning and being continuously shaped by the word, then it will not be long before his or her preaching becomes lifeless and stagnant.

Second, there is often disconnect between the readings of text and the sermon. Franklin Kirksey has observed that, “All too often the biblical passage read to the congregation resembles the national anthem played at sporting events. It gets things started but it is not referred to again during the lesson. The authority behind preaching resides not in the preacher but in the biblical texts.”[6] What is the solution to these problems?

The solution is the systematic preaching of expository sermons. Haddon W. Robinson defines expository preaching thus:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.[7]

In expository preaching, the sermon is determined by the biblical text. The biblical preacher realizes that the power of preaching lies not in what he or she has to say, but in what God has already said. Expository preaching is not presented as just another human philosophy. Instead, expository preaching presents itself as carrying divine authority. The preacher is subject to the text along with everyone else. What the text says is normative for the life of the whole church.[8]

The best method for expository preaching is preaching through books as wholes. This enables the preacher to preach the whole counsel of God without skipping over those difficult passages that require so much of the preacher or may even require the preacher to give up on his or her own folk or pet theology. Both preacher and congregation are forced to reckon with everything that God has said. This deals with both our problems outlined above. If the message is book-by-book, then the preacher will always be growing and learning and being shaped by God’s word. His or her preaching ought to demonstrate this growth and dynamism. This growth will also be translated to the congregation as they are brought face-to-face with tough texts. Further, expository preaching links the text to the sermon keeping it from being like the national anthem at a sporting event. When the text determines the sermon, there is unity of thought and intention in the worship service.

Further, the methodical preaching of expository messages through books-as-wholes provides both preacher and congregation time to soak in an entire book of scripture for a period of weeks or months. Passages within the book are not stripped from their original context and are safeguarded against being used as proof texts. The congregation can even learn how to study the Bible from the method of the preacher. If the preacher approaches the text inductively addressing the book as a whole, then the congregation may learn to study passages within their larger book context. A preaching ministry grounded in the book-by-book preaching of expository sermons will most faithfully represent the divine authority of the word of God and feed the people of God consistently over the long term.

We have seen then that the content of preaching should be Christocentric and that the method should be expository. But what is the function of Christian preaching? What happens when the preacher faithfully exposits the word of God to the congregation?

Christian preaching functions as a means of grace. That is, God has sovereignly decided to use the preaching of the word as an instrument of grace through which he convicts of sin, enables faith, and extends life. That preaching is a means of grace is clear in the New Testament. When Peter stood before the people of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and declared to them that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead and that God had made him both Lord and Messiah, Luke tells us that those who heard were “cut to the heart” and began to ask what they ought to do (Acts 2:36-37). When the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection was proclaimed, the Spirit of God went to work to convict the hearers of sin cutting them to the heart. The preached word was the means by which the Spirit extended prevenient grace to convict of sin and begin drawing these hearers to God through Christ.

That preaching is a means of grace is prominent in the writings of Paul as well.[9] In Romans Paul declares that the gospel “is the power of God for salvation” (Rom 1:16). He says further that the message of the gospel to the Thessalonians came “in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thess 1:5).

Christian preaching is the chosen instrument of the Holy Spirit to work powerfully for salvation in those who hear. When the gospel is faithfully preached, then the Spirit uses it to bring conviction and enable the response of faith in order that those who hear might receive salvation. It is important to note the Trinitarian shape of this work as well. It is the Spirit that uses the message about Christ to bring people into right relationship with the Father which is the essence of eternal life (John 17:3). We can conclude, then, that Christian preaching is the means of grace by which the Triune God draws people to himself, enables faith, and extends life.

Christian preaching is not merely for those who need conversion though. 1 Cor 14 indicates that the upbuilding of the assembly is the primary function of the gathering of the Church.[10] This means that the preached word not only functions to extend life to the spiritually dead, but to nurture the development and growth in spiritual life of believers. Preaching is a means of grace for the continuing work of sanctification of believers. Through the expository preaching of biblical messages, the Spirit of God works to bring believers to maturity in Christ. So, preaching is a means of grace to convert as well as to sanctify.[11]

In conclusion, then, we have seen that faithful Christian preaching is Christocentric. The preaching of both Old and New Testaments ought to be centered in Christ or it is not authentically Christian. We have also seen that Christian preaching ought to work methodically and expositionally through the whole counsel of God. Preaching ought to embrace the whole text. This strengthens the possibility for continued growth on the part of both preacher and hearer while ensuring that the text is connected to the message. Expository preaching also gives the proper place of authority to God. This kind of faithful preaching functions as the means of grace by which the Triune God brings people into relationship with himself and provides growth and sanctification to the body of believers. It is for these reasons that the proclaimed word is so central to the biblical revelation and has been at the forefront of faithful Christian ministry throughout the history of Christianity.


[1] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, “But preaching has to do with a particular content, a certain message conveyed” (Preaching, Nashville: Abingdon, 1984, 17).
[2] Mark Dever et al., Preaching the Cross (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007) 21.
[3] Cf. Craddock, “In Jesus, says the Fourth Evangelist, God is revealed (1:18)” (56).
[4] All scripture quotations are from the NRSV.
[5] Craddock, 71.
[6] Franklin L. Kirksey, Sound Biblical Preaching: Giving the Bible a Voice (Charleston: BookSurge, 2004) 76.
[7] Haddon W. Robinson, Biblical Preaching: the Development and Delivery of Expository Messages, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001) 21, italics original. Cf. Wayne McDill’s description of biblical preaching in which, “the purpose, the theme, the structure, and the development of the sermon are to reflect the text” (The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching, Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994, 14).
[8] Cf. Donald E. Demaray, Introduction to Homiletics, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Light and Life, 1990) 27.
[9] Cf. Demaray, “One of the marks of the Pauline preacher, in the first century or our own, is unwavering faith that God speaks through the preached Word” (35).
[10] Cf. Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005) 98.
[11] Cf. Demaray, “The task of the preacher is, therefore, twofold: to win and to nurture converts. To win converts the preacher proclaims the eternal truths of God’s Word, including sin and judgment, spelling out salvation through Christ and his cross, calling for the decision to accept Christ and to live accordingly. To nurture converts one must preach th substance of the Christian faith, explaining how Christians live and work in the world with God, themselves, and their fellows” (39).

May 20, 2009

Why the Author of Hebrews Wouldn't Have Been a Calvinist

Hebrews 10:26-30 is known for its shocking and drastic declarations. In the span of five verses, the author deals with both issues of the extent of the atonement and the perseverance of the saints. The author creates a comparative contrast between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of Christ (28-29). He is claiming that the member of the Mosaic covenant who violated that covenant was judged by the terms of that covenant. He goes on to indicate that the punishment for those who spurn the Son of God will be that much worse. The comparison here involves the similarity between the Mosaic covenant and the Messianic covenant that whoever violates them will be judged according to the covenant of which he is a member. The contrast involves the varying degree of punishment. If condemnation was that bad for the one who violated Moses, how bad do you think it will be for the one who violates the Son of God. Several observations are worth making here.

1. The author of the Hebrews does not presuppose that membership in the covenant of Christ translates into final salvation. He sees this as a commonality between the Mosaic and the Messianic covenants. There are those who can be sanctified by the blood of the covenant of Christ who persist in sin and fail to receive the salvation that is the ultimate and final benefit of the covenant relationship. That is to say, the author of Hebrews did not believe in the final and necessary perseverance of the saints. Note that the verb "to sanctify" (hagiadzo) is from the same Greek root as the word for saint (hagios).

2. Since the author does not presuppose that covenant membership guarantees final salvation, he presupposes that one may be sanctified by the blood of Christ and yet fall away. Thus, he also takes it to be the case that the benefits of Christ's blood extend to some who may ultimately fall from grace and experience the covenantal curse. This means that the author of Hebrews did not believe that the atonement was only intended for those who would be ultimately saved.

So, Hebrews teaches the possibility that the saints may fall away and that the potential benefits of the atonement extend to those who may not be saved. For these reasons, the author of the letter to the Hebrews would not have been a Calvinist.

May 19, 2009

To Calvinists from a Calvinist: Let's Calm Down

I was happy to see a post by Calvinist blogger C. Michael Patton calling for Calvinists to "calm down." I was most pleased to see Patton calling Calvinists to account for commonly associating Arminians with various heretical positions. Patton's attitude is to be greatly appreciated, and if both sides took his tone more often, then the debate would be more productive. I've copied a few exerpts below or you can read the whole thing.

"Calvinists: Don’t send me any more emails talking about the “heresy” of Arminianism. I don’t get excited. Don’t forward me any more videos that dramatize the departure of Arminian theology. I won’t ride that bus. If you do, with sadness, I will just delete them. Not because of the message telling me “Ten Reasons Arminians Have a Different Gospel,” but because the message you give when you forward this kind of stuff."

"Are Arminians wrong? This is what we believe, but the seriousness of their departure should not be overstated. We treat each other with great respect, knowing their love for Christ and the image of God they bear."

"The rhetoric that is out there is embarrassing. I am sick of having to explain over and over again what Calvinism is not before I get to what it is. “No, we are not arrogant.” (At least we are not supposed to be.) “No we don’t think we are better than others.” (How could we? Don’t we promote the doctrines of grace? Do we even know what grace means?) And, most importantly, “No, we don’t think Arminians are going to hell.” If you do, then you are way out of line."

May 16, 2009

How Shall the Pastor Be Chosen?

In the United Methodist Church, we operate with an itinerant system of ministry. This means that pastors are not called by a congregation to serve their church. Rather, pastors are sent by a bishop who oversees their ministry with the assistance of other superintending pastors. When I explain this system to people for the first time, they often respond with surprise that we operate this way. Many might be even more surprised, though, to learn that this method of pastoral appointments is grounded in the practice of the New Testament church.

The first occurrence of a "sent out" ministry comes in Acts 13:1-3. The prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch were instructed by the Holy Spirit to set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work for which the Spirit has called them. These leaders discerned the intention of God's Spirit during a time of fasting and praying. Then they laid hands on Barnabas and Saul and sent them off to the ministry to which the Spirit had called them.

The second occurrence of evidence for a "sent out" or "appointed" ministry comes in Paul's letter to Titus. Paul indicates that he left Titus in Crete to "put in order what remained to be done, and should appoint elders in every town, as I directed you" (1:5). Paul then goes on to list certain qualifications that overseers ought to meet. The point here is that Paul expects Titus to oversee the appointment of pastors in multiple towns and the local churches in them. The choice of the pastor is not here left to the congregation of the local church. Instead, Paul charges Titus with the responsibility to appoint numerous elders in numerous places. Titus has the responsibility to discern who meets the qualifications of an overseer and to place them where he discerns they will be most effective. Paul clearly teaches a hierarchical or top-down approach to elder selection and appointment.

So, why do Methodists practice an itinerant or sent pastoral ministry? Because such a ministry is clearly taught in the New Testament. The United Methodist Bishop who is faithful to his consecration will make every effort to faithfully discern the leading of the Holy Spirit in the appointing of pastors to churches. Admittedly, this does not always happen. There are those who use their authority as a way to maintain power and puff themselves up. However, this does not mean that the appointment process should be abandoned. Rather, all involved, Bishops and pastors, should make themselves available for God's work being sure that pastors are sent according to God's call.

May 6, 2009

The Transgression, the Gift, and the Many: Romans 5 and the Unlimited Scope of the Atonement

Calvinists and Arminians disagree over the scope of Jesus' atoning work. Calvinists argue that the saving work of Jesus is intended exclusively for the elect. God has chosen the unchangeable number of those to be saved, and Christ's work is effective for them alone. Arminians see this as a denial of the clear teaching of scripture that the scope of Christ's atoning work is unlimited being sufficient for the salvation of every person and applied to a person on the condition of faith in Christ.

One of the key texts for the Arminian understanding of unlimited atonement is Romans 5:15, 18-19 where Paul says, "But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many...Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."

For Paul, if we are to understand the nature of Christ's atoning work for us, we need to understand the nature of Adam's transgression. The sin of the one man, Adam, led to death for all. In Adam, all sinned and died. In his sin, Adam represented the entire human race and the entire human race fell as a consequence. Paul's term for the entire human race here is "the many." Calvinists and Arminians agree that the extent of the fall was unlimited with regard to the whole human race.

Paul draws out the similarity between the transgression of Adam and the obedience of Christ through his use of the term "the many." In Adam, the many were made sinners. Likewise, in Christ, grace abounds to the many. That means that the scope of the atonement is equal to the scope of Adam's transgression. The work of Christ abounds to all those who, in Adam, sinned and died. If Adam's transgression caused the entire human race to fall, then the provision of Christ's atoning work is extended to the entire human race as well.

Now if there is similarity between Adam and Christ, there is also a difference. In Adam, all died without condition. However, in Christ, the benefits of his saving work are applied on the condition of faith, as Paul has indicated earlier in the letter (cf. 3:21-26). This is what guards us against using this text to teach universal salvation.

It should be clear, then, that the provision for salvation in Christ extends as far as the penalty of Adam's transgression. That is, the atoning work of Christ is unlimited in its scope.